Fake news

The birth edition,  Issue 02

 

 

Text by: Christine Spiteri
Visuals: Sara Paone

Fake news seems to be everywhere, and can travel faster than at any point in history. 

How do we navigate between what’s true, partially true, or false? Christine Spiteri asks.

 

 

 

 

When I first heard about the coronavirus, I barely took any notice. I was sat in the dark and deserted Norwegianair that January night, with my head buried in Cusk’s Outline, until the Turkish passenger in my row tipped his iPhone screen so I could follow the CNN headline. ‘They found a new virus in China,’ he whispered. I shrugged and replied, ‘something new everyday.’ Days later all the doomsday scenarios seeped through the virtual cracks and into the real world. I couldn’t not take notice anymore. A lab in China. Bio-weapons. World War. Stories spiralled out of control. Keeping up was hard. Deciphering what was true and what was false was harder. Rationally, the claims felt exaggerated. But a part of me still doubted whether the coronavirus being manufactured in a lab as a weapon of war could be false. 

Stories that are not true or are meant to be misleading have been used to change people’s views and opinions, and make us question who we can trust since time immemorial. From public speeches to letters, poems, and newspaper articles, the innovation of the printing press, photography, and more recently, the Internet, have over the years helped fake news become more sophisticated. And with the explosion of social media and machine learning, fake news seems to be everywhere, and can travel faster than at any point in history. How do we navigate between what’s true, partially true, or false?

Social media grants us access to free flowing information, entertainment and distraction. What we fail to recognise is that our brains are not designed to consume all this information. We need to make a conscious effort to stop. To just process. How often do we take a step back and think: Wait a minute, where was this published? Why is it being shared by so-and-so? Why on this day? In fact, studies show that one of the reasons why we fail to discern truth from lies online is because we do not stop to sufficiently reflect on our existing knowledge of the subject in question. The story of the coronavirus’ origins in a lab seemed plausible because my brain took a mental shortcut, connecting the limited knowledge I had about ‘viruses’ and ‘China’ to reach a conclusion.

Our brain is an association machine, constantly looking for patterns and meaning to make sense of the world. And one of the mental strategies we rely on when passing judgement is to look at our existing library of knowledge. When this knowledge is not there, our brain might consider the source’s credibility to decide whether or not the story should be believed. But social media has even altered our measure of credibility. Up until a decade ago, credibility and influence were quantified in terms of one’s profession or educational background. In the digital age, it’s the number of ‘followers’ and social feedback (e.g. ‘likes’) that foster a sense of legitimacy. This means that anyone can choose to publish their own beliefs and opinions to an audience, making it very challenging for readers to decipher the veracity of the claim, especially among those who are not as media literate. In our post-truth world, sensationalist beliefs and opinions are prioritised over accuracy and facts.

Another reason why we fall for fake news is emotion. Fake news is geared towards shock, fear and anger. Raw emotion coupled with the fast-paced and distracting context of the social media world seems to contribute towards the spread. Studies found that even when people are uncertain of the content’s accuracy or the source’s agenda, they would still share if it is consistent with their views. This could explain the rise of extremist views and unscientific beliefs being sowed, such as anti-vaxxer and climate change denial campaigns. Indeed, a group of MIT researchers found fake news is shared 70 per cent more often than factual stories, and spread roughly six times faster.

The Internet as a collaborative space where the world’s knowledge is democratised has been put to the test by online business models that handsomely reward content for likes, shares and clicks. The original promise of what the Internet should be is being exploited, but that doesn’t mean things cannot change. I decided to pull the plug on Facebook eight months after first hearing about the coronavirus on that Norwegianair flight. After doom scrolling through lockdown, reading opinions and fact-checking claims, I realised social media had been like a faucet of gushing water that could never quench my thirst. I had a choice. Fake news was only going to go away if I stopped paying attention to it. Seeking reliable sources and reflecting on what we’re consuming is only the first step. Let’s choose to start questioning. Successfully navigating between what’s true, partially true, or false starts with reconsidering our relationship to content platforms.

Our brain is an association machine, constantly looking for patterns and meaning to make sense of the world. And one of the mental strategies we rely on when passing judgement is to look at our existing library of knowledge. When this knowledge is not there, our brain might consider the source’s credibility to decide whether or not the story should be believed.

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